To capture the intellectual acuity of Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an actor portraying the seven-footer would need to possess a towering level of gravitas. Winning Time creator Max Borenstein had said casting Kareem was the hardest of the Showtime Lakers. When Solomon Hughes walked through the casting door, Borenstein and legendary casting director Francine Maisler knew they had their Kareem. On casting Kareem, Borenstein told Deadspin in a separate interview, “One of the challenges of Kareem is he doesn’t only have to look and feel like Kareem as a basketball player. We all know Kareem as a human being, this towering intellectual heavyweight, with gravitas. There are a lot of boxes we have to tick to find the right person to portray this icon.”
Before taking on the role of the Lakers center, Hughes, 43, had never acted. He came from the world of education. He is currently an instructor at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. His courses focus on college athletics, academic achievement, race, collegiate athletics policy, and activism — the intersectionality of athletics and activism. Previous to his stint at Duke, he spent eight years at Stanford as an administrator and a lecturer in the graduate school of education. Needless to say, Hughes embodies the wit and intellectual curiosity of the Lakers legend.
While completing both his M.A. and B.A. at the University of California at Berkeley, he also played for the men’s basketball team across the late ‘90s and early 2000s, where he was captain of the squad. And had a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. At 6-foot-11, Hughes has the imposing physical and philosophical attributes to embody the 7-foot-2 Kareem onscreen. In Winning Time, Hughes imbues his Kareem with a mutual love of jazz and socio-political awareness. In preparation for Sunday’s episode, which features prominently on Kareem’s role in the rise of Showtime, Hughes spoke with Deadspin about portraying the all-time points leader in NBA history and an intellectual giant.
Deadspin: For your first acting performance you’re portraying one of the most legendary players to ever play a professional sport. Did you have reservations?
Solomon Hughes: That’s a great question. My reservations were thinking, “Do I have the confidence to completely immerse myself in this?” “And make myself vulnerable towards what they’re trying to do?” This story is about so many people, a community of people who came together and sparked this incredible dynamic change in the way we look at and think about sports. I think my reservations were more personal. I am grateful that I was welcomed into this community by hard-working, very brilliant, incredibly talented people who made it easier to acclimate to the level of work they were committed to every single day. At the end of the day, Kareem is someone I admired my entire life. I admire who he is as a person and what he’s contributed to society, not just on the basketball court. You want to honor him.
DS: What were you most concerned with capturing about Kareem?
SH: We are all, to some degree, misunderstood. There’s a depth to him, in terms of the things he’s interested in and what he’s involved himself with. The intellectual avenues that he pursues, it’s immense. As someone who has been deeply influenced by the way he has lived his life, my hope is that fans appreciate a guy who, on the world’s biggest stage, was able to intensely pursue excellence on the basketball court. And did it five times with this group (won championships). And stay focused even with all the distractions Hollywood can offer.
DS: What was your impression of Magic and Kareem’s relationship?
SH: I always think of Magic’s press conference when he announced to the world he had HIV. Kareem was one of the people that was in the room. That really speaks to a brotherhood. Watching them on the floor, what I always remember about the Forum floor, the court was golden. It was almost like a dance on a golden floor. The joy and enthusiasm that was coming from that. And in terms of what they’ve said about each other during retirement ceremonies, there’s a lot of reverence they have for each other. They really accomplished a lot together.
DS: How did you approach your relationship with Quincy Isaiah, who plays Magic Johnson? Did the two of you spend time together behind the scenes, or did you isolate yourself from him so you would interact with him akin to Kareem and Magic’s early relationship, which was initially frigid?
SH: Not at all. I became really close with Quincy. The deeper and more authentic our friendship got, the more vulnerable we could get to really portray some of the tension. I could not have imagined doing this with anybody else.
DS: What was your training regimen like to get in shape? What kind of drills did you go through to perfect Kareem’s fluidity on camera?
SH: A ton of skyhooks. (laughs) We shot the pilot in 2019. As soon as I got the part I was on the court every single day. Jump hooks — right hook, left hook, from every single angle. From the free-throw line, to close inside, etc. And then COVID happened. We were all essentially isolating. I found an outdoor court and that became home. Every single day. When I was able to join the rest of the cast, when we started filming, there were no off days. When we weren’t filming we were typically doing basketball choreography. Within that choreography, there was very rigorous, intense training. Lots of sprints. Lots of cardio. A ton of cardio. I’m 43, so I am definitely the veteran of the crew. Being around the younger guys made me feel a little younger. My body definitely didn’t agree at the end of the workouts.
DS: What made you want to walk away from the game after playing overseas and with the Globetrotters?
SH: I was being distracted by the things that are external to the game but influence the game. Even if I just walk to the park to get some shots up, just the sound of the swish, it’s so beautiful, it’s therapeutic. I get so much joy out of that simple act. Having played college basketball, that’s a machine. It’s professional sports under the guise of amateurism. The reality is as a college basketball player, you’re in programs where a coach who is supposed to be an educator, at the end of the day, his job is reliant on wins and losses. It’s the only column people pay attention to. It doesn’t matter whether or not his players are thriving as individuals or students. It’s the wins and losses. If that’s hanging over his head, you’re absolutely going to feel that pressure. The way college sports is set up, it puts an immense amount of pressure on everybody. I felt that.
Coming back to the game now, and looking at it through a different lens, hearing how the writers and producers are fans of the game, has really been wonderful. I love the game now and I’ve gotten a new appreciation for it.
DS: A lot of what you’re saying, and the way Kareem spoke about sports reminds me of William Rhoden’s book $40 Million Dollar Slaves. Did you read socio-political books on sports in preparation for the role, to understand the climate at that time?
SH: For sure. I really wanted to immerse myself in what was being said and written about the Black American experience, and the world, in the 1970s. Kareem had a good read on what was happening. The research to get into this character was intense, but it was also really rewarding. I wanted to know about him and the ecosystems that were playing a large part in how he developed his mind.
DS: What issues do you align the most closely with Jabbar?
SH: Kareem talks a lot about being curious. Like leaning into curiosity. When I hear that, it’s about pivoting away from making assumptions about people. I think he’s a learner. I think he’s curious about so many different things. There’s liberation in not locking yourself into a space where you know everything. You need to develop different perspectives. That’s a personal philosophy of mine as well. Growing up watching him play, my dad was always making sure we were paying attention to the fact that we were not only watching an incredible basketball player, but that he also has a really important history in how he’s been on the front line of conversations around human rights, civil rights, etc.
DS: We have seen and heard responses from some of the people portrayed in Winning Time, like Magic Johnson and Jerry West. Have you had a chance to chat with Jabbar about your performance?
SH: No, I have not.
DS: Do you see yourself extending your acting career into other projects? Are there any projects in the pipeline?
SH: I hope so. Right now our hope is we get a second season. We want to run it back and tell more of the story.
DS: And finally, growing up in California, right outside L.A. during the Shaq/Kobe-era, who was your favorite player?
SH: I grew up in Riverside and Kobe and I were the same age. I was in the same gym as Kobe once in an AAU tournament. Before that, it was the Vlade Divac and Nick Van Exel Lakers. I think Van Exel was my favorite Laker ever. He was a lot of fun to watch. And Eddie Jones. When Kobe and Shaq teamed up that was a very fun team to follow.